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Anita Hill weighs in on Idaho workplace harassment case; will give UI Bellwood Lecture

Anita Hill (Victoria Will / AP/Invision)
Anita Hill (Victoria Will / AP/Invision)

Though the Idaho state controller’s office may have raised eyebrows when it spent $14,000 to hire an outside law firm to investigate allegations of sexual and racial harassment against a former top employee, women’s rights icon Anita Hill says the office did the right thing.

“An independent investigator is often the best approach … to figure out the truth of claims,” Hill said in an interview Thursday.

Hill, who sprang into the national spotlight in 1991 after accusing then-nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas of sexual harrassment, is now a Professor of Social Policy, Law and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University. She will deliver the annual Bellwood Lecture at the University of Idaho next week.

Of the need for independence in the state controller’s office investigation, Hill said that investigators from inside the agency may feel an obligation to the employer, or may even be implicated.

State Controller Brandon Woolf’s former chief of staff, Dan Goicoechea, resigned from the office after the investigation in August. Woolf said in a statement in September that after the investigation, the office “separated Mr. Goicoechea’s employment.”

The matter wasn’t publicly announced at the time, however, and Goicoechea quickly signed on with another state agency, the state Department of Education. After a former employee filed a tort claim against the state in September detailing her claims that he engaged in abusive and violent behavior in the workplace, including repeated sexually explicit comments, he resigned from that position as well.

“It is deeply troubling to me that I’m still hearing about these cases,” said Hill, whose explosive testimony before a Senate committee about her own sexual harassment by Thomas galvanized the nation, but didn’t stop his confirmation as a justice.

“The other part of the story that is a bit troubling is that the individual then went on to another government office,” Hill said. “That’s one of the things that we’re finding, too. We find it whether it’s in the university system, or in state offices, or in businesses, that individuals move on to other positions and the people who are hiring them don’t know the background.”

“I’m not saying that the person who was found to be harassing the employee should never be able to get a job,” Hill said. “But I think when it’s a state job, there ought to be real transparency when the person is moving.”

She added, “I can definitely see that the money that was spent bringing in an outside investigator was worth it – just so the public has confidence in the process.”

Hill’s testimony about Thomas prompted new attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 1992, which was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” there was a significant jump in the number of women elected to the U.S. House and Senate, and the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission skyrocketed.

Since she first spoke out as a 35-year-old law professor, things have changed, Hill said. Back in 1991, the issue of sexual harassment in American workplaces simply wasn’t discussed.

“I think that is a monumental social change, that we can now talk about it,” she said. “It can bring about change.”

Plus, she noted, “The law has changed. … There have been several cases really trying to spell out what the law does and what it means, what sexual harassment means, how to define that. And I think that is significant.”

But with a president who whose earlier taped comments were aired during his campaign boasting of sexually assaulting women, and who explained his comments away as “locker room talk,” Hill said, “I think that it has emboldened some individuals to defend what I think is the indefensible, sexual assault.”

On the other hand, she said, Donald Trump’s comments also prompted many men to come forward and say that such behavior and talk is not normal. “The good news is there was a rejection of that thinking,” Hill said. “For those who are saying, ‘Well, I just don’t believe it happens,’ the numbers speak for themselves.”

“We keep hearing these stories,” she said. “We hear the anecdotal information and episodes, and we have quantitative evidence of the persistence of this problem.”

Hill also is concerned about the moves by Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to change standards with regard to how universities investigate campus sexual assaults. “The real problem, I think, is that Betsy DeVos really made things very unclear,” Hill said. “That kind of uncertainty is not what colleges want. They want to know what the law requires.”

Hill said the message she’ll bring to Idaho in the Bellwood Lecture goes beyond issues of sexual harassment and workplace inequity.

“The real message that I want us to focus on is how are our policies going to be made,” she said. “It’s very troubling. One of the things that I’m hearing from this administration, is that what seems to be happening is that the policies that they want to adopt now are just to reverse what was being done in the last eight years – as opposed to collecting data, and … the development of policies based on facts and the interest of the larger population.”

“It’s not what has been done historically, whether you’re talking about the last eight years or before,” Hill said. “And it’s certainly not, I think, the way that we want to be governed, especially in the areas of civil rights for all people.”

Hill is the author of two books, including her 1995 memoir, “Speaking Truth to Power.” In addition to teaching and speaking, she also advises on class-action workplace discrimination cases.

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